Wednesday 10 December 2008

Extreme sport ? Why there is no point in saying that cycling is safe without it being subjectively safe

This bridge provides an essential link for bicycles by
keeping cars out of the way. Read more.
Skydiving is a very safe sport. In the USA in 2007 there were 2.2 million jumps and only 18 deaths of sky-divers. That's an average of a death every 122000 jumps. If you were to jump once every day you could expect to live to 334 years of age before a skydiving accident killed you. (source: USPA website)

What does this have to do with cycling ? Well, these are precisely the sorts of statistics that many cyclists like to quote to non-cyclists to try to encourage them to cycle in countries where there is little cycling.

Does this work ? Generally not. Cycling remains at around 1% of journeys made by bike in the English speaking countries. People who are enthusiastic cyclists cycle. Those who are not enthusiasts don't. In that way it's very much like skydiving. People use both activities to raise money for charity.

I share with a lot of my readers that I wouldn't willingly jump out of an aeroplane with a parachute no matter how safe I was told it was. I can see that it's thrilling, and I'm sure it is fabulous fun. However, jumping from an aeroplane offers no utility to me, and it is way past my threshold for subjective safety. Many people feel the same way about cycling.

So what is the difference between the Netherlands, where everyone cycles, and the countries where few people cycle ?

It's quite simple. There are two main points. First the high level of subjective safety achieves this:
  1. A cycle ride here is always a pleasure.
  2. Motor vehicles are generally somewhere else.
  3. Street design is such that conflict between motorists and cyclists is rare
What's more, there is the great efficiency of cycling in the Netherlands:
  1. Cycle routes are often shorter than driving routes
  2. You can skip past traffic lights
  3. You can park closer to your destination
What's more, everyone does it. From children, through families together on to older people.

It's a logical impossibility to expect 40% of journeys by bike if cycling only appeals to 5% of the population. That is why cycling here has to be for everyone and why a high degree of subjective safety is vital. A high cycling rate and high subjective safety cannot be separated. This is why I've highlighted subjective safety in a number of posts.

If you live in a country where there is a low level of cycling, you live in one where the subjective safety for cyclists is too low for most people to consider cycling. Without improving conditions cycling will continue to look like an extreme sport to many people and you will have as much success in increasing the rate of cycling as in convincing the general public to skydive.

While cycling in busy traffic might sometimes seem like an extreme sport in some countries, it doesn't here. The woman in the photo is definitely not engaging in an extreme sport. There is no "traffic jamming" here in Assen. The nearest any car travelling at speed will get to her today is if one crosses over the bridge she's just passed under. What's more, she is on the most direct route to the centre of the city. This high quality cycle route is closer to a straight line than any route by car, and has no traffic lights on it, vs. a minimum of three sets by car. Wonderful conditions for cycling like this attract people to cycling.

To see conditions for cycling which are so irresistable that they attract everyone, come on a Study Tour. If you simply want to relax in conditions away from the stress of cycling elsewhere, consider one of our holidays.

I should perhaps point out that I have no argument with skydivers. If you want to throw yourself out of a working aeroplane, that's fine by me. However, if you don't mind, I'll just watch.


spiderleggreen said...

You make a great point about increasing "subjective safety". As one those bikers in the low biking USA, it's something to think about. I'm sort of used to the idea that biking has it's risks. I think that is part of the draw. But if I do want things to change, here, the simplest way is to change the infrastructure of my city. Instead trying to convince people to toughen up and get on a bike, I should be focused on generating the political will to change our roads. But that takes interested and motivated people who appreciate bicycling. Organized around the best way to do that. Which is why I still have to encourage people to bike.

I like the idea of toning down the whole extreme sport idea of bicycling. It's just a way to get around, and with some changes a better way to get around.

Michael said...

David, your logic is impeccable, and the skydiving analogy is so useful.

Yes, I get it. Now what to do?

Well, I do think; Waltz of the Bikes is useful in that it plants a different image, an ideal, which works to cloud out the skydiving image. Mike

CrapTard said...

I ride in normal clothing on the streets. It's neither extreme in appearance nor reality.

Americans are willing to forego critical thought for convenience, even if it costs more.

I'd rather convince people to be less weak and motivated than cave in to convenience.

What does making a population physically and psychologically weaker and submissive gain?

Multiparty Democracy Today said...

It is the same with flying to me. There is almost nothing intrinsic about a plane that makes it feel safe. What feels safe about being in a pressurized metal cylinder thousands of metres above the ground with pilots exactly as fallible as other humans are and nothing but a specially curved wing and engines that make you almost the speed of sound to keep you in the air. Regardless of the fact that it is objectively very safe, and that risks are very well managed, there are very few things anywhere near planes big enough to cause damage except when it is taking off and landing. Air traffic control keeps planes well out of each others paths. But I am so scared of the thought of flying that even a week filled with almost unlimited access to pop cans of my choice, ice cream, a look at trains I love to see and getting to meet with dogs and cats did not convince me. Similar proponents of cycling despite conditions rather than because of them exist. It gets you there faster, there is less congestion, etc. I had to be dragged on by my parents and a a flight attendant I was so strongly gripping the handrail in the thing that connects the door to the terminal gate, crying and demanding to be allowed to stay home. Even taking some sort of medicine that inhibits your brain in the same way that alcohol will (did not use actual alcohol) generated that response in preparation for the flight home.

It is similar fear that drives people away from riding bikes. It does not feel safe enough. You can be told statistics every day about how low the casualty rate is and how many measures are in place like air marshals in planes and advance stop lines/bike boxes, bike lanes, two stage left/right turns, etc, but never feel like it was an option because you are not feeling same enough. The only thing that would make me willing to board a plane would be something like a doctor prescribing rohypnol or something like that makes you fall asleep quickly before the plane can take off or taxi. The only thing that entices people to cycle is if they fee like they are doing it away from danger. That danger that is almost always cited is motor traffic. I wish that trans atlantic ships still carry passengers at reasonable rates so I could go on one of your study tours.